On the eve of the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, let us remember Gandhi’s Churchillian moment in the face of Pakistani aggression
MJ Akbar | 24 Jul, 2020
Mahatma Gandhi with Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, 1947 (Photo: Getty Images)
ONCE, ON AUGUST 14th, 1947, Pakistan became a fact he could not change, Mahatma Gandhi devoted himself with his usual complete dedication to nursing the horrific, suppurating slash across the body of the subcontinent. On August 15th, he refused to celebrate a freedom that had come at the price of India’s Partition, telling an astonished All India Radio that he had nothing to say, and a bewildered BBC that they must forget that he knew English. He chose instead to strive for peace and solace in the midst of a brutalised and battered Bengal. On August 15th, he was in Calcutta, shivering at the prospect of unprecedented bloodshed, rather than in Delhi, where his nominated heirs were celebrating Independence and the prospect of power beyond the reach of Britain.
From a lonely, abandoned house in Calcutta, using the elixir of his moral courage, Gandhi brought peace to Bengal, and thereby the whole of east India. Even the wizened British editors of The Statesman described Gandhi’s achievement as a miracle. But in the west, Punjab, Sind, Delhi and the Frontier were tortured by the frenzy of the unbelievable and inhuman carnage that followed Partition. Gandhi’s voice, heart and ideals became a psychological shelter for lost refugees, although even he could not fully erase the anger against barbaric violence. From September, Gandhi led the practical effort to obtain millions of essentials, like quilts, for camps that would house the bereft and the broken even as he tried to calm the withering rage of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had lost everything that mattered because of compromises made by blind politicians.
Those who still believed in humanity during that havoc would only trust Gandhi. On October 15th, 1947, a group of anonymous but obviously Muslim craftsmen brought blankets and money for distribution among refugees. Gandhi placed this donation on record. ‘They have not even given their names. I asked them to distribute those things themselves among their own fellowmen who have suffered. But they said they wanted to hand over the things in Gandhi’s hands, because such things should be distributed among the Hindus and the Sikhs who have suffered in West Punjab. I was touched by their sentiment. In the present conditions even if a few Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs do things like these, they must be written down in letters of gold. They said that at one time they considered me an enemy of the Muslims; but now they were convinced that I was a friend to everyone. So am I, and I claim to be one. I do not need a certificate from anyone for that. I have lived in that spirit not for five or seven years but for the last 60 years’ (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 97, Publications Division, page 91).
The poison of civilian conflict was also shadowed by the prospect of war between the two new countries. The germ of tension was the future of Jammu and Kashmir, which as yet had not acceded to either nation. On September 27th, 1947, Gandhi made one thing clear: “In the event of a war between the Union and Pakistan, the Muslims of the Indian Union should be prepared to fight against Pakistan.” The prophet of non-violence was as totally transparent about the duties of nationalism as he had been about his commitment against British imperialism. He did not want war, but if it did break out, every Indian’s obligations were enumerated with clarity. As Gandhi wrote to Julian Huxley: ‘I learned from my illiterate, but wise, mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from a duty well done’ (this letter was published in the UN Weekly Bulletin of October 17th, 1947).
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan, emboldened by Partition, unable to judge the difference between glory and vainglory, unwilling to wait for discussions, launched an armed, pre-emptive strike to seize Kashmir in the last week of October 1947, starting a war that has not stopped after seven decades. The first official mention of Pakistan’s sudden military grab was made by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at a buffet dinner in honour of the visiting Thailand foreign minister on the night of Friday 24th, October.
The next morning, the last Viceroy and first Governor General of the Dominion of India, Lord Mountbatten, chaired a meeting of the Defence Committee at which Lieutenant General Rob Lockhart, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, read out a telegram from the ‘headquarters of the Pakistan Army stating that some five thousand tribesmen had attacked and captured Muzaffarabad and Domel and that considerable tribal reinforcements could be expected. Reports showed that they were already little more than thirty five miles from Srinagar’, according to the diary (published as Mission with Mountbatten in 1951) kept by Alan Campbell-Johnson, Press Secretary to the Governor General.
A frantic and unnerved Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, had requested armed help from Delhi, but Mountbatten insisted on accession to India as a necessary condition for assistance. Mountbatten was still the British monarch’s representative, and British officers were still in charge of the Indian Army: they would have never supported the despatch of Indian troops to Srinagar without the paperwork being in place.
The germ of tension was the future of Jammu and Kashmir, which as yet had not acceded to either nation. On September 27th, 1947, Gandhi made one thing clear: ‘In the event of a war between the Union and Pakistan, the Muslims of the Indian Union should be prepared to fight against Pakistan.’ The prophet of non-violence was as totally transparent about the duties of nationalism as he had been about his commitment against British imperialism
‘The Maharaja’s accession gave complete legality to the action so far taken,’ notes Campbell-Johnson. Britain, thereby, became the first foreign country to accept the accession. Indeed, when Jinnah, responding to the arrival of Indian troops in Srinagar, ordered Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Gracey, acting Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, to send his army formally into battle, Gracey ‘replied that he was not prepared to issue any such instruction without the approval of the Supreme Commander [Mountbatten]’.
Gandhi, father of freedom, was not kept informed of these decisive developments by his anointed heirs. Later, perhaps not without a touch of regret, Gandhi said that he only knew what had appeared in the newspapers. He maintained his normal schedule of meeting individuals and delegations, and holding prayer meetings in the evening.
On October 25th, 1947, he scolded a group of communists for their lack of patriotism: “Communists have come to consider it their supreme duty, their supreme service, to create disaffection, to generate discontent and to organize strikes…People seek knowledge and instruction from Russia. Our communists seem to be in this pitiable state.”
The Muslim festival of Bakr-Id fell on October 26th. Gandhi had a powerful message for the community: ‘Ahimsa is always tested in the midst of himsa, kindness in the midst of cruelty, truth in the midst of falsehood, love in the midst of hate. This is the eternal law. If on this auspicious day, we all made a sacred resolve not to spill blood for blood but to offer ours to be shed instead, we would make history. Jesus Christ prayed to God from the Cross to forgive those who had crucified him. It is my constant prayer to God that He may give me the strength to intercede even for my assassin. And it should be your prayer too that your faithful servant may be given that strength to forgive’ (quoted by Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Volume 2).
Gandhi’s first remarks on Kashmir came on the evening of October 26th, 1947, at his prayer meeting: “Yes, I am quite aware of it [Kashmir]. But I know only what has appeared in the newspapers. If all those reports are correct it is really a bad situation. All I can say is that we can neither save our religion nor ourselves in this manner. It is reported that Pakistan is trying to coerce Kashmir to join Pakistan. This should not be so. It is not possible to take anything from anyone by force.”
He added: “The people cannot be attacked and forced by burning their villages. If the people of Kashmir, in spite of its Muslim majority, wish to accede to India no one can stop them. The Pakistan Government should stop its people if they are going there to force the people of Kashmir. If it fails to do that, it will have to shoulder the entire blame.”
The next day, Gandhi wrote to Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the last Premier of united Bengal, whose role in fomenting the virulent communal riots of August 1946 had been assuaged by his public admission of guilt in 1947, on Gandhi’s insistence. Gandhi’s letter, dated October 27th, 1947, asserted: ‘Hindus and Muslims are not two nations. Muslims never shall be slaves of Hindus nor Hindus of Muslims. Hence you and I have to die in the attempt to make them live together as friends and brothers, which they are.’ Gandhi saw absolutely no contradiction in the fact that a Muslim-majority state wanted to join the Union of India.
By October 29th, Indian troops had saved Srinagar airport but heavy fighting continued within five miles of the capital. Gandhi had a 90-minute talk with Mountbatten, and was finally given a detailed brief on the continuing crisis. That evening, at his prayer meeting, Gandhi spoke at length about a war thrust upon India. He described it as “an astounding story”.
From a lonely, abandoned house in Calcutta, Gandhi brought peace to Bengal, and thereby the whole of east India. But in the west, Punjab, Sind, Delhi and the Frontier were tortured by the frenzy of the carnage that followed Partition. Gandhi’s voice, heart and ideals became a psychological shelter for lost refugees, although even he could not fully erase the anger against barbaric violence
Gandhi noted that Mountbatten had “welcomed” Maharaja Hari Singh’s decision to accede to the Indian Union, and commended the decision to send Indian troops. He explained the difficulties in troop movement by an airlift, and applauded the bravery of about 1,500 Indian soldiers fighting against a “large number of men who have come from the North-West Frontier Province”, referring to the Tribals who had been armed, trained and led by thinly disguised Pakistani officers.
Gandhi praised Sheikh Abdullah, who had taken charge of the government. The Mahatma called him the “Lion of Kashmir” who was doing “whatever a single individual can do… he has decided to do his utmost”. The people of the state were with him, but even in this atmosphere of barbarism perpetrated by the invading Tribals, they would not descend to such levels in their response. The proper answer was to leave the matter to professional soldiers. “What should they do? Let them fight to the end and die fighting. The job of armed soldiers is to march ahead and repel the attacking enemy. They die in fighting but never retreat… So these 1,500 soldiers have made an effort. But they will have really done their duty when all of them lay down their lives in saving Srinagar. And with Srinagar the whole of Kashmir would be saved.”
The theme of sacrifice extended to civilians: “If anyone can save Kashmir, it is only the Muslims, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Rajputs and the Sikhs who can do so. Sheikh Abdullah has affectionate and friendly relations with all of them. It is possible that while saving Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah would have to sacrifice his life, his Begum and his daughter would have to die and all women of Kashmir would have to die. And, if that happens, I am not going to shed a single tear. If we are fated to have a war, there will be a war.”
By October 29th, Indian troops had saved Srinagar airport but heavy fighting continued within five miles of the capital. Gandhi had a 90-minute talk with Mountbatten, and was finally given a detailed brief on the continuing crisis. That evening, at his prayer meeting, Gandhi spoke at length about a war thrust upon India
Gandhi could see that the aggressors could not survive without the support of Pakistan, even if Karachi was calling it an “independent uprising”. He had absolutely no qualms about the necessity of defeating this invasion with a military response and civilian sacrifice: “If the people of Kashmir die in the fighting, who would be left behind? Sheikh Abdullah would have gone, because his lion-heartedness consists in dying while fighting and saving Kashmir to his last breath. He would have saved the Muslims and also the Sikhs and the Hindus. The Sheikh is a devout Muslim. His wife also offers Namaaz. She had recited Auzobillahi to me in her melodious voice. I have even gone to his house. He would not let the Hindus and the Sikhs there die before the Muslims.”
GANDHI HAD CALLED on Begum Abdullah during his only visit to the Kashmir Valley, in the first week of August 1947. He saw in Kashmir’s struggle against Pakistan hope and an antidote to the poison that had contaminated the people after communal savagery.
“What if the Hindus and the Sikhs are in a minority there? If this is the attitude of the Sheikh and if he has influence on the Muslims, all is well with us. The poison which has spread amongst us should never have spread. Through Kashmir that poison might be removed from us. If they make such a sacrifice in Kashmir to remove that poison, then our eyes also would be opened. The tribesmen are only interested in killing. So they invaded Kashmir and even showed their strength. I know all who are with them. But the result would be that if all the Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir sacrificed their lives, that would open our eyes also. Then we would know that not all Muslims were insincere and bad, there were some good men also among them. Similarly it is not true that all Hindus and Sikhs are either good and saintly or worthless and kafirs. I believe that there are good people among all, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. And it is due to these good people that the world goes on—not due to the people carrying arms.”
Gandhi ended on a near-triumphant note as he imagined the cleansing power of sacrifice: “I shall dance with joy even if everybody in Kashmir has to die in defending his land.”
Campbell-Johnson reports a comparison that Gandhi made to the Spartans, which has been excised out of the precis made of the Mahatma’s speech by his aides. (Gandhi would always check before the final version was released.) The British diarist’s account is credible because Gandhi was deeply impressed by and made frequent references to the courage of the Spartans; it was a constant reference point during his months in Noakhali between November 1946 and February 1948. Campbell-Johnson recalls in his entry for October 29th, clearly written very late into the night, that ‘the Mahatma struck an almost Churchillian note over Kashmir. His line was: the result was in the hands of God; men could but do or die. He would not shed a tear if the little Union force was wiped out like the Spartans bravely defending Thermopylae, nor would he mind Sheikh Abdullah and his Moslem [sic], Hindu and Sikh comrades dying at their posts in the defence of Kashmir. That would be a glorious example to the rest of India; such heroic defence would affect the whole sub-continent, and everyone would forget that Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs were ever enemies’.
Mountbatten, in the meantime, was trying to persuade Jinnah to abort the aggression. He met Jinnah in Lahore and told his press secretary that he was very pleased with the three-and-a-half-hour conversation, although there did not seem to be much to be pleased about. Mountbatten told Campbell-Johnson, as recorded in the entry for Sunday, November 2nd, that the two got into an argument about who was responsible for the war, which ended up in a ‘vicious circle. Mountbatten agreed that the accession had indeed been brought by violence, but the violence came from the tribes, for whom Pakistan, not India, was responsible’.
Privately, no one had any doubt that Jinnah had ordered and organised this “independent uprising” in Kashmir. Jinnah used a typical feint by claiming that India had committed violence by sending troops, a demonstrable inversion of facts. Mountbatten stood his ground and ‘Thus it went on until Jinnah could no longer conceal his anger at what he called Mountbatten’s obtuseness’.
Gandhi had absolutely no qualms about the necessity of defeating the invasion with a military response and civilian sacrifice. He had called on Begum Abdullah during his only visit to the Kashmir Valley, in the first week of August 1947. He saw in Kashmir’s struggle against Pakistan hope and an antidote to the poison that had contaminated the people after communal savagery
Mountbatten went so far as to inform Jinnah about the extent of the Indian troop build-up in Kashmir, and made it clear that the prospect of tribesmen now entering Srinagar was “remote”. This seemed to shake Jinnah up, for the Pakistan leader changed his line quite dramatically. I will quote directly from the diary: ‘This led Jinnah to make his first general proposal, which was that both sides should withdraw at once and simultaneously. When Mountbatten asked him to explain how the tribesmen could be induced to remove themselves, his reply was ‘If you do this I will call the whole thing off’, which at least suggests that the public propaganda line that the tribal invasion was wholly beyond Pakistan’s control will not be pursued too far in private discussion.’
In other words, Jinnah admitted at the very inception that Pakistan had launched the ‘tribal’ invasion, and started the war.
Jinnah was a curious mix of uncertainty and contradiction. Mountbatten introduced, for the first time, the idea that there could be a resolution through a plebiscite managed by the United Nations. Jinnah flatly rejected the suggestion.
Jinnah believed that the average Muslim Kashmiri would not vote for Pakistan, although he attributed this to “fright”. Campbell-Johnson describes Jinnah’s stance: ‘On inquiry Mountbatten found that Jinnah’s attitude to a plebiscite was conditioned by his belief that the combination of Indian troops in occupation and Sheikh Abdullah in power meant that the average Moslem would be far too frightened to vote for Pakistan. Mountbatten proposed a plebiscite under United Nations Organization auspices, whereupon Jinnah asserted that only the two Governors-General could organize it.’
It was Mountbatten’s turn to reject this suggestion.
According to Campbell-Johnson, ‘Jinnah’s mood was one of depression, almost fatalism. He kept harping on the masochistic theme that India was out to destroy the nation of his making, and his attitude to every personality and act of policy across the border was coloured by that general assumption.’
In complete contrast, Gandhi had absolute certainty about Kashmir on exactly the same day in Delhi. He told his prayer meeting on the evening of November 1st, 1947 (which included a bhajan by Dilip Roy with the line ‘We belong to a land where there is no sorrow and no sigh’): “From the number of planes going from here, I guess they are all carrying soldiers [to Kashmir]. Some cowards are running away from there. Why should they do so? And where will they go? Why should they not put up a brave fight and lay down their lives? At this rate even if the whole of Kashmir is razed to the ground I am not going to be affected. I would gladly ask you also to rejoice over it, but on the condition that everybody, young and old, should die there valiantly. If anyone asks why the children also should die there, I will say that the children cannot go anywhere. In any case they stay with their parents. Those people are all there in Kashmir, how can we provide them with arms? A person like me does not need arms. After all, if we are alive, we have to sacrifice our lives. Then alone can we say that the soul is immortal. If we do not do this, it means that we confuse our soul with our body and worship the body. But the body has to die one day. If the child is on the mother’s lap, when the mother dies he also dies. And when one has got to die, let him die willingly. Let them say that if the Afridis [Tribals who had invaded the Kashmir Valley] have come to destroy them they will prefer to perish of their own accord. Even the soldiers who have gone there would die with pleasure. They have gone there to die. When can they remain alive? Only when they know that everything is safe and there is no invasion on Kashmir and peace is well-established.”
It was a powerful message, given without doubt or rancour: India’s soldiers would guarantee the safety of Kashmir, defeat the aggression and establish peace.
Alan Campbell-Johnson describes Gandhi’s speeches as almost Churchillian. For a war-hardened Britisher whose service included four years on the Headquarters Staff of Lord Mountbatten at Combined Operations and South-East Asia Command, who had been awarded CIE, OBE and Legion of Merit (US), and who had seen Winston Churchill lead a ravaged but unbroken Britain to triumph against Hitler’s once-invincible war machine, there could be no higher praise for a Mahatma who brought down the British Empire.